Catacombs
Type
Fiction

Convalescence

We left the Hôpital Saint-Antoine at dawn. We stood on the pavement, cold and dumb. I heard the whale song of an ambulance fade sourly into the streets. It was Lewis who turned his back on the building first.

‘Come on,’ he said, with a jerk of his hand. ‘Let’s go home.’

I didn’t want to go back to the apartment, but it was early and there was nowhere else to go. I asked if he wanted to get a coffee. He looked at me with an odd, tight expression.

‘Why don’t we go home, have a shower. I’ll make us coffee if you want.’

We started moving as two machines. At the metro steps we laced fingers. The train was full of commuters, all dressed for work. We were coming home at the wrong time of day. I thought of all the mornings I’d walked home after a big night, still drunk, waving to cheerful neighbours out with their dogs. I thought of jetlag.

We looked at each other in the reflection of the train window. Lewis spoke to my image, sotto voce, how’s the pain, and I said nothing.

We didn’t speak again until we got to Belleville, halfway up the hill.

‘Almost there,’ Lewis said, as though he were taking me somewhere I’d never been before. At the door he plunged his hands into his coat. ‘The fuck did I do with the keys?’

‘It’s all right, I’ve probably got them.’ I groped through my bag, whose contents shifted and slid over one another like things lost on the ocean floor. I dropped to my haunches. Lewis knelt beside me, palms upturned to receive the pens, scraps of paper, coins, lipstick, empty paracetamol tabs I handed him. My fingers were clumsy with cold. They’re not here. You must have them.’

‘I don’t.’ There was a frantic scratching in pockets. Further up the hallway, Mrs Bernardeau was locking her own door. Her older son Étienne stumped toward us, hitching his backpack.

‘’Jour,’ he said as he passed. We smiled and murmured at him in unison. His mother paused at our door, clutching the squirming baby against her chest.

Ça va?’ she asked.

I nodded. ‘Ça va, j’arrive pas à mettre la main sur mes clés –

Étienne was kicking the iron banister rhythmically. Mrs Bernardeau swiped at his arm and said, ‘Ben, j’ai le double, si tu veux.’

‘What?’ Lewis asked me. ‘Does she have the super’s number?’

My fingers closed around the key ring. ‘Got them.’

Mrs Bernardeau smiled. She said goodbye to Lewis in English, and then she was gone, and we were still on our knees at the threshold of the door.

Inside, I set the kettle boiling.

‘Why don’t you get in the shower,’ Lewis said. ‘You’ll feel better once you’ve warmed up.’

‘You go.’

He did not take off his coat. We faced one another across the kitchen tiles.

‘Are you all right?’ I asked.

‘Are you?’

‘Yeah. You go first.’

 

He turned on the taps slowly, as would a guest. I heard the air groaning in the pipes, felt the pressure shuddering through the walls. I watched the news while I waited for him. A bad accident on the Périphérique; a volcanic eruption in Iceland; a senior politician would admit to sending text messages to his secretary, but not to fucking her. The forecast for the day was fine, four degrees, with the threat of snow tomorrow. I switched off the television. My work was spread over the floor on my side of the bed, a mess of maps and illustrations and dense text. Yesterday morning Lewis had crouched there, barefoot, in the babel of paper, examining some delicate ink plan or other, flipping up and down the coloured sticky notes I’d daubed all over the photocopies. He was like a child fingering a lift-the-flap book that yielded no catch cry, no colour. When at last he’d got up and moved on, his feet had left small impressions in the paper, dimples all over Balzac and an illustration of the Saints-Innocents. It seemed a long time ago.

 

I gathered the papers and sat in the window to read until Lewis came out of the bathroom in a pearly haze of steam. I watched him dress. First the jeans that he retrieved from the floor and climbed into, stiffened to the shape of his long crooked legs, then a clean blue shirt. He rolled up his sleeves like a man ready for a task of work.

 

At the hospital they’d offered us pamphlets. The doctor had said I can recommend an English-speaking grief counsellor, and I’d said It’s okay. It wasn’t something we’d planned. The doctor started to say that it didn’t matter, that everyone responds differently. This was when Lewis had gone to get a coffee. I said We were – I was going to have a termination. The doctor had nodded. He’d said There’s still room for grief. I’d asked him when I could return to work.

Lewis flicked on the television again. He sat on the bed to put on his socks, and looked at me with his hangdog eyes.

‘I need to call the university,’ I said. ‘Tell them to cancel my class this afternoon.’

‘Want me to do it?’

How? I almost snapped, but didn’t. He was trying to find a use for himself. He lay back and rubbed his face.

Fuck, what a weird night,’ he bellowed. My eyes were leaking. He looked up at me. ‘Oh, hey. I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be,’ I said. ‘I don’t know why I’m crying. Must be some weird hormonal thing. I feel fine.’

‘Come here,’ he said.

I stood with my clothes bundled in my arms. ‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘I’m okay.’

 

*

 

When I got out of the shower he’d found a Louis Malle film on the television. It was Jeanne Moreau, hopeless and handsome in a rain-drenched street. We’d seen it before, a few years back, at a festival. He’d liked it for its Miles Davis soundtrack. I’d liked it for its femme fatale.

It’s that movie,’ he said, ‘you know.’

I lay with my head in the crook of his arm, not quite comfortable. I dozed for a while. When I woke he was still holding me. I thought about my mother. I thought about Lewis. He’d played a show in a red cave of a bar the night before last. Lewis’s is not the kind of music the French will listen to. Trop compliqué, says my friend Guillaume, pushing his lips into a flower. Our friends had been kind enough to come anyway, to watch politely while Lewis coaxed stories from his guitar. Going home on the train afterward, Lewis had sat with his guitar case between his legs and sang Every fucken’ city looks the same and we’d laughed in that weepy, private way.

 

The trumpet was still keening from the television. I sat up.

‘Let’s get out. Let’s go and do something. We won’t be here much longer.’

‘Where do you want to go?’

I suggested we go to the catacombs. He’d never been.

‘A cemetery,’ he kept saying. ‘Today, of all days.’

‘It was just an idea. Don’t worry about it.’

‘Look, if you want to go, I’ll come with you. It’s just – ’

‘Why is today such a bad day to go? I don’t want to just sit here.’

He looked at me like his patience was fading. I was feeling mean. I wanted to pick a fight.

He didn’t take the bait. He said my name instead. I lay down again, faced the wall.

‘How’re you feeling?’

‘Fine,’ I said, ‘I feel bulletproof.’

‘You hadn’t actually made the appointment. For the termination.’

‘Well, no, but we’d decided, hadn’t we.’

Lewis’s body was warm. His face was at my neck.

‘It would be very normal to feel sad,’ he said into my hair.

‘You can’t feel sad about something you didn’t want.’

‘Okay. Okay, Tess.’ He rolled away to the other side of the bed.

We were discovering in each other new shapes and colours, strange prisms of blue that we never knew existed.

 

*

 

We did go to the catacombs in the end. At the entrance he stopped short and read, in a dramatic version of his schoolboy accent, ARRÊTE! C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORT where it was carved above the doorway. He did a little laugh.

It was clammy down there in the earth. Lewis held my hand until we had to walk single-file, shouldering skulls.

‘Ever touched one?’ he asked. He put out his hand and cupped a smooth forehead. ‘Wonder who this was.’

We stopped from time to time to read the inscriptions and the quotes, or to admire the bones stacked so lovingly, so symmetrically, in the jaundiced light.

‘It gets a bit much, doesn’t it,’ he said as we neared the end. ‘You start to get a bit desensitised to it, you start to want some fresh air.’

We burst into the chalky daylight a mile away from where we’d started. We looked at each other, stunned.

 

Underground again, but in the metro, we walked past the string section that sometimes plays at Châtelet. There was a thickness of people. I lost sight of Lewis. The strings were playing Wagner, the prelude from Tristan and Isolde, which I only recognised because Lewis loved it. I might have stood there watching for a minute or two before I remembered we were separated in the crowd. I saw his untidy dark head. He dropped some change into the open cello case and hurried out of the way, to the back of the crowd. He turned his face to the wall. I watched him from across the passageway. Right there I felt as if I’d relinquished something.

 

The doctor had left the two of us alone so I could make the translations.

‘They’ve offered me a D and C,’ I said.

‘A what?’

I’d explained it to him.

‘I always just thought it happened by itself,’ Lewis said.

‘Sometimes it does.’

He looked twelve years old. I thought about how strange it was, all these secret things that women know, and how men might never learn them.

‘It’s just that it’s over with quicker this way,’ I said.

‘And they’ll give you a general.’

‘It’ll only take ten minutes. Then they’ll probably keep me a few hours. You may as well go home for a bit. Get some sleep. I can call you when it’s over.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he’d said. ‘Jesus, Tess.’

I should have said something nice then, but I only turned on my side to look out the window. It was night. The fluoros on the hospital ceiling were reflected in the glass. They made neat rectangles. There’d been nothing else to see where I lay.

 

In the train we took seats side-by-side. Lewis touched the back of his hand to mine. Our knuckles kissed lightly.

‘Are you hungry?’ he asked. I shook my head.

‘I think we should get something,’ he said. ‘We haven’t eaten since this time yesterday.’

‘Okay.’

I was tired but I didn’t want to go back to the apartment. We got off at République. I think he meant to head towards Guy’s resto, but realised that we’d have to do the explaining – why I wasn’t teaching this afternoon, why we’d missed dinner at Aurélie’s the night before – and thought better of it. We ended up at a bistro near the canal. Lewis wolfed down his soup, but we sat for a long time afterward. He started one of his lovely, absurd letters. I watched him, hand skidding over the foolscap as he tried to organise and describe everything he’d seen, resurrecting it all from the composts of memory. Occasionally he’d look up. Where was that funny place we saw the band play last week? What was the name of that thing Alice cooked for us?’ Crinkly eyes: he was being witty. I’d had four cups of coffee and I could feel my heart throbbing. At last he leaned back from the table.

‘Do you want to wait here a minute?’ he asked. ‘I won’t be long.’

I sat by the window while he ran across the street. I ordered a glass of wine and opened the paper. There was a story about a Russian man who had planned to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. When he got there he’d met a woman with the same intention. Now, the article reported, the two were to marry.

I read it twice. I thought to show Lewis. Perhaps he’d get a song out of it. Perhaps he’d get one out of today. Not long now before we’d be back home, standing at the back of the same gigs, power pedalling up the same hills, kissing on the same street corners. There’d be talk of moving up the country. There’d be months of him working, alone with his songs that sprawled like stories, like galaxies; a humming in his skull. Then all the shows, all the glory of dusky pubs. And perhaps I’d recognise us, months later, in a nest of words he’d leave on the kitchen table for me to read. Strange, the way we revealed ourselves to each other in small, shy flashes, even after all this time.

He’d come to Paris with me because he was my fella. I’d got the research grant; it was what I’d wanted. Anyway, he’d said at the time, haven’t you followed me round for years? He’d made an adventure out of it, remained good-natured even when he was pulling pints in an Irish pub and playing open-mic nights for free; him, who’d played sold-out shows back home. I couldn’t imagine going back. There was so much that I wanted, but it was here, in this city, where Lewis could only tread water.

He returned looking pleased with himself, head bowed into the collar of his coat, package tucked under his arm. He sat back down opposite me and handed me the paper bag. Wrapped inside layers of tissue was the treasure he’d bought in secret: a cardigan, thick-knitted lambs wool the colour of smoke. I put it on straight away. He was happy that he’d made a good choice.

‘You can take it back,’ he said shyly. ‘If you don’t like it, or – you want something else.’

‘No, it’s beautiful. I love it.’ I leaned across the table to kiss his mouth.

The waiter swept by, made genial comments about lovers and luck as he cleared our cups.

Vous avez de la chance,’ he said, ‘you look after each other. You keep her warm and she does the talking, hein?’
He winked at Lewis, clapped him on the shoulder. He stood and talked for a while. Where were we living? For how long? What did we do? All the while, the cups tittered quietly in his hands. He liked us. They all did.

‘It’s going to be a fine afternoon,’ he said when he brought us the bill. ‘The clouds are going to disappear.’

 

We both looked up as we left the cafe. Anaemic sky.

‘Do you feel like going up to Sacré Cœur?’ I asked. ‘If it’s going to be a fine afternoon.’

‘Are you up for it?’ he asked. ‘You’re not flagging?’

‘Yes.’

So we caught the metro in the wrong direction; not back home, but to that great white elephant on the hill. I loved the view from Sacré Cœur almost more than anything else in the entire city. Lewis loved the basilica itself. He was not religious, but he’d told me about the first time he visited the cathedral. ‘I broke down,’ he’d said. ‘I just understood completely how people did believe in God back then. Imagine if you were alive when that was being built. How could you not believe in God?’

When we surfaced in Pigalle, the sun was low in the sky and the streets were awash with a sleepy orange light. Our shadows were oblique. Lewis’ earlobes glowed red.

‘I always reckon it’s funny,’ he said as we passed the Sexodrome, ‘that they did the good Catho thing and put the Sacré Cœur as high up as they could, but then you’ve got all this shit sitting right under it. Bloody – jelly dongs. And Osez La Masturbation.’

‘It was the outer suburbs. The sex was here before the church was.’

‘Yeah, I know, it’s just – well, I guess it’s pretty good, actually.’ He laughed, bent his head to kiss me without slowing his pace. We could have been American tourists, strolling through the tired, gritty streets. We could have been anyone.

We let go hands and did not speak as we started up the steps. Halfway up to the top, I paused to look behind, to see the city taking shape at our heels. It was impatient, like a child sneaking a look at a Christmas present. Lewis turned around too, when he felt me drop away.

‘Do you want to stop?’ he called, a few steps ahead. ‘You look like you’re fading a bit.’

‘No, let’s just keep going.’

His strong, spidery legs took the stairs two at a time. I was slower. First there were four steps between us, then ten, and suddenly he was rushing ahead the only way he knew how, pulling away like an untamed horse, upward into the wide sky. He was a hands-in-pockets kind of walker, and there was something almost comical about his skinny figure, all in black, loping away from me. But the higher he got, the more enfeebled I was. He grinned and mouthed something at me, exhilarated, from the top. I pushed on, but crippled; I had the impression that I could topple back. Lewis was looking down on me. He’d stopped smiling. It’s all right, I wanted to say before he could ask it. I made a silly joke. He laughed unsteadily. I set one foot in front of the other.

And when I reached the top at last, he held me very tightly. The view I had was of his coat, a sliver of the apricot-coloured afternoon past his shoulder. We might have stood like that for ages, clenched and petrified, but after a time we unfolded. He put an arm around me and we stood in the shadow of the basilica. The clouds had lifted and the city spread its legs for us; all the factories, all the rooftops, the square where the abattoir once was, the cathedrals and hospitals and spires and stations, all steeped in gold.

‘It’s going to be all right,’ he said without looking at me. ‘We’re almost there.’

We stood there shoulder-to-shoulder. We were Marie and Pierre in Zola’s Paris, looking out over the city at the novel’s end. Du blé, du blé partout, un infini de blé …

All this beauty, all this gold. I turned to him. I wanted to tell him. There’s this priest, I wanted to explain, who has a complete loss of faith, une crise de foi totale, and so he leaves the monastery and meets this girl, Marie, and

It was too hard.

‘What?’ he asked. He dropped his head. ‘What did you say?’

So much beauty, so much gold. It was pornographic.

‘I said,’ I answered, ‘I said, “this is too hard.”’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jennifer Down is a writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, Overland and Kill Your Darlings. Her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, will be published by Text in 2016.

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